Forty-one years ago, Buckminster Fuller published his "Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth: A Bold Blueprint for Survival that Diagnoses the Causes of the Environmental Crisis." In it, he claimed humanity would not survive the 21st century if it continued to build an economy based on mass consumption , inequitable trade relations, short-sighted allocation of fossil based resources, and lack of consideration for holistic systems.
A decade later, Jimmy Carter gave his "Crisis of Confidence" speech during which he famously said, "We are at a turning point in our history. There are two paths to choose. One is a path I've warned about tonight, the path that leads to fragmentation and self-interest. Down that road lies a mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others. That path would be one of constant conflict between narrow interests ending in chaos and immobility. It is a certain route to failure."
Right this very moment, scientists and citizens who recognize that we are quite a ways down the path that leads to failure - failure of our society to find common ground and to care for that ground - are in the midst of a teachable moment. And we are bungling it.
Right this moment, we have tangible, irrefutable evidence of Western society's overwhelmingly destructive impact on our planet in the form of a hemorrhage of crude oil gushing into the sea, destroying lives, livelihoods and vital ecosystems far beyond that which can be seen with the naked eye. You don't need scientific evidence to know that all of the oceans are interconnected (we all agreed to trust the cartographers long ago). We can try to convince ourselves that the stuff can be contained, that the mess can be cleaned up - but in our heart of hearts we know that there's been a terrible accident. This is the dreaded ring you hear at 3:00 AM - I am calling to inform you that it's not going to be all right.
Unless we change course ...
Scientists, I need to have a word with you. You need to know that when you say "climate change," many cannot hear you. Demanding that your data is real and that those who doubt are ignorant is only serving to further alienate those you'd hoped to convince. But that's not to say the situation is hopeless. The issue simply needs to be examined from a different angle. Give us something we don't need to take on faith, or have a degree in science to truly understand. Cut straight to the bottom line: it is pollution that is the problem, not global warming. Pollution may be the cause of global warming, but it is the harmful effect of pollution that we can all see and feel and understand with our own bodies, hearts and minds. We can all understand with no data whatsoever that breathing chemical dust and car exhaust is harmful to our health. We know without being told that we all share one planet and that, in order to successfully coexist, in order for our children to live healthy lives, we must learn ways to be better stewards of it. There's no more time to waste trying to convince us that our actions are responsible for destroying the planet at some arguable rate, when it would be so much more efficient to make the case that our actions are very quickly destroying ourselves. For proof, just turn on the TV. Look out the window. Instead of reiterating the problems, assuage people's fears by offering solutions - most importantly, that we can and must build a new foundation for our economy based on that which benefits society as a whole and not based solely on what's best for corporations.
What Can We Do to Make a Difference?
- Don't give up. James Lovelock, famed progenitor of the "Gaia Hypothesis," which described planet Earth's biosphere as one enormous, organism-like system that stayed in delicate balance via an infinite number of intricately connected feedback loops, claims that we are past the point of no return - planet Earth will not be able to support human life for much longer. By giving up hope, we also relinquish any modicum of contentment and peace that may come from striving for that which we know is right. When hope is gone, humanity is lost.
- Understand the true cost of resources and be willing to pay for them. A few simple shifts would go a long way toward encouraging an overall reduction in resource consumption. Imagine a system (common in many European countries) whereby the less one uses, the less one pays, rather than the other way around. Our current model encourages waste and instills a false sense of value by rewarding the biggest consumers with a discounted price per kilowatt or gallon and by penalizing those who use the least with higher cost per unit.
- Take it personally. We are all complicit in environmental catastrophe until each and every one of us takes responsibility for our actions. We can't wait for the perfect legislation or the cheapest, most efficient "green" technology. We must strive everyday to be conscious of how our actions impact our own health and that of our communities and society.
- Work together. The problems of our society and our environment do not belong solely to the government or to the corporations - we are the government and the corporations. By taking matters into our own hands and pooling our knowledge and expertise, enormous change is possible. The time is now. Every child in every classroom across America, every engineer, plumber, doctor, artist, cook, cashier, carpenter - even those out of work - it's time for us to unleash our "comprehensive propensities" (as Buckminster Fuller called the human inclination toward creative innovation). We're going to need all hands on deck to get our little Spaceship Earth back on course.